Thursday, July 31, 2014

Joe McHugh Goes Back to School

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Is there a heart in Erin’s green isle that hasn’t been moved by the thought of Junior Minister Joe McHugh on his first day at school? While all the other boys and girls are off for the holidays, building sand-castles outside their Floridian beachfront properties or converging on Ballybrit for the Galway Races, Little Joe is setting off down the road with his schoolbag up on his back.

Minister McHugh can be forgiven for feeling like a man with the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Simon Harris, the new Junior Minister for Finance, isn’t being fostered out to David McWilliams for a course in economics. Neither is Seán Sherlock, the new Junior Minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs, being locked in a closet with an atlas and a flashlight, under orders not to emerge until he can match capital cities to countries with ease and confidence.

No such luck for Joe. Joe has to spend his summer holidays at school, learning Irish. He’s making a brave fist of it, sending a tweet in Irish last Monday about how he was off to school that very morning. There were only five grammatical and two syntax errors over the 140 characters, so it’s not like he’s at a complete loss.

That’s a little cruel, but it does make an important point. Whenever something like this happens – that is, when the language movement screams blue murder at a slight, perceived or otherwise – there’s always a lobby in the movement that insists that learning Irish is as easy as falling off a log. Why, even a child can do it, as the flourishing Gaelscoileanna all over the country attest.

Minister, if by chance you should come to read this, be warned: Irish isn’t easy to learn at all. Not even kind of. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible of course. I speak an odd word here and there myself. But don’t kid yourself that it’ll be easy. It won’t. Irish is really hard to learn, and it’s really hard to learn for three reasons.

The first reason is because Irish is an inflected language, which means that words change according to what they do in a sentence. Words don’t change in English – they used to long ago, but those traits were shed through the centuries. The only trace evidence of inflection in English is the distinction between the subject pronoun “who” and the object pronoun “whom,” and even that is on its last legs now.

Not so in Irish. The words in Irish change according to what they’re doing in a sentence. When you’re not used to that, it can be a bit of a fright. In early days, when Latin was taught in schools, it wasn’t so bad, because Latin is inflected as well. If you’re Polish, Irish may seem a stroll in the park – Polish is a very inflected language indeed. But coming from English, inflection is one of the first hurdles you have to clear.

The second problem, then, is that Irish didn’t evolve as a language the way other languages evolved. This is because somebody tried to kill it. The somebody didn’t succeed, but the wounds are still clearly visible on the body, which remains weak and fragile. This is why Fíorghaeil (literally, “True Irish people,” those whose enthusiasm for the language can be a little off-putting for the less motivated) harp on and on about what is ceart, correct, and what is mícheart, incorrect.

A language has to be true to its own idiom, its own flavour. When French had Montaigne and Hugo, English had Shakespeare and Dickens, and Russian had Tolstoy, all stiffening the sinews of their native tongues, Irish poets and writers were in the hills and on the run, not even worth the five pounds that was put on priests’ heads at the time. Irish, as a language, has a lot of catching up to do, and that’s why people can be over-protective.

And then we come to the third, and saddest, point of all. The single biggest reason Irish is so hard to learn is because we, the state, have made such a phenomenal bags of it.

Glass hammers, rubber nails and chocolate fireplaces are as masterpieces of human achievement compared to what the sovereign Irish nation has done in its efforts to revive the first language. Don’t mind that old chat about it being beaten into us. Reading, writing and arithmetic were beaten into us just as hard, but they seem to have stuck well enough.

Efforts at strengthening the language have succeeded in doing the exact opposite, like it was some sort of subtle plot to kill the language with kindness. For instance, a big effort was made in the 1950s to simplify the spelling of Irish, to make it easy to learn (this is the spelling in the Roman alphabet, not the old Gaelic typeface – that’s another day’s work).

Myles na Gopaleen ridiculed the spelling reform at the time and looking back with history’s perfect hindsight, the spelling reform has been a disaster. Irish remains difficult to spell, and the ham-fisted effort to simplify the spelling of the language has come at the cost of making any books published under the old spelling nearly unreadable.

A patriot and friend of this column sent your correspondent a copy of Seán Ó Ruadháin’s magnificent translation of Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West of Ireland recently. I can barely read it, because it was published in 1934 and the spelling is very jarring to modern convention. Vandals, vandals, vandals.

And now it’s Joe McHugh’s turn to try his luck with the hobbled and battered language, as bruised by those who nurse it as those who tried to kill it. Not only that, but Joe McHugh has to do it when the spirit of the age says never mind the writing, it’s the speaking that’s important. Irish has no received pronunciation – we can’t even agree on how to say the colour “black”in Irish – is “dubh” pronounced “dove” or “doo”? Nobody knows. The Minister would be well advised to take sneaky notes if he gets a chance.

If Joe McHugh can turn it around, if he can suddenly somehow “get” the language and have it light a fire in him, he can become the greatest champion of the language seen since the Gaelic Revival of the last nineteenth century. It’s not all that likely, but it this column wishes him all the luck in the world. Go n-éirí an bóthar leis.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why So Serious? The Relentless Misery of Irish Literature

First published in the Western People on Monday.

In his review of the prize-winning and more-or-less-impossible-to-read novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, Professor John Sutherland wondered in an aside why it is that Irish fiction so hates Ireland. The Professor listed the culprits in the litany of literary misery in an article in the Guardian newspaper after McBride’s novel won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction a month or two ago.

Sutherland pointed out that James Joyce and Samuel Beckett high-tailed it to Paris as quick as ever they could, with Joyce charmingly describing Ireland as “a sow that eats her farrow.” Sutherland also remarks that John Banville, whether writing as himself or as Benjamin Black, is unlikely to send anyone to the Emergency Room in the local hospital having split his or her sides from laughing.

And Sutherland hit the nail square on the head. Irish literature – that is to say, those books that the chattering classes of south Dublin like to talk about – is generally one long tedious whine, with chapter breaks every now and again so you can choke back a double whiskey to stiffen your courage.

In order to successfully compose an essay on the Irish novel as part of his English studies in NUI, Galway, some years ago a contemporary of your correspondent made the mistake of putting off the necessary background reading until the weekend before he sat down to compose. As such, he had to binge-read the four novels set for the course in order to share his insights with his professor.

The first he read was A Pagan Place, by Edna O’Brien. There is no line of dialogue in that book anywhere. It’s like being stuck beside Edna herself on a bus making its way over and back on the backroads of her native Clare on a wet Tuesday night in late October.

She drones on and on in a stream of consciousness while you yourself only want to run away into the Aillwee Caves and sit in a damp, dark and cold hole until she gets bored and nods off in her seat.

But our hero got through it, in the end. Next up, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore, a laugh-a-minute romp set in Belfast about the hilarious antics of a middle-aged spinster who deals with her loneliness by sinking into alcoholism.

Unsurprisingly, our man could have done with a drink himself by the time he got through to the end of that one, but he thought that he had the back broken on the task now. He reached up to his shelf, took down The Dark, by John McGahern, and started to read.

One chapter later, the book was on the floor and our man was sprinting into town like Keith Higgins when he sees green grass ahead of him. Our man burst into a sleepy Hole-in-the-Wall bar on Sunday night and couldn’t even speak until he had imbibed a quart or two of that Heavenly soup brewed in St James’ Gate.

After reading three Irish novels in a row, each more miserable than the last, this student of literature found himself in the same position as Lucille, that strange woman whom Kenny Rogers met that time in a bar in Toledo – he was hungry for laughter, and here ever after, he was after whatever the other life brings. Anything but more McGaherism, Moore-ism or, God between us and small farms, O’Brienism. Anything but O’Brienism.

O’Brien and McGahern were giants of the ‘sixties generation of Irish novelists. Has the boom given rise to a slightly jollier style of Irish novelist? Could it be possible that the bust that followed the boom has dragged the Irish novel into a more mature worldview, the sort of sangfroid that comes from viewing triumph and disaster, and viewing both disasters just the same?

Er, no. As well as Banville the Bleak and McBride the Miserable, mentioned above, the other two greats of contemporary Irish fiction are Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright.

Tóibín’s great hero is the American writer of the last century, Henry James, a man assured of a podium finish in any list of Great Bores of Letters. If that’s what Tóibín is looking for good luck to him, but I don’t plan to plough through ten dense pages only to discover that Hector has put two spoons of sugar in his tea.

Anne Enright won the Booker Prize for a book that she herself described as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.” Be still, my heart. Not only are you wall-to-wall with the slowly dying and the terminally dysfunctional should you decide to read the thing despite all advance warning, you are also in danger of having young men in horn-rimmed glasses and beards too big for them corner you in bars wanting to talk about the work moved them. Thanks a lot, Anne.

Because Literature is Serious-with-a-capital-S, people think that means it can’t be light-hearted, even just a little bit. But we’ve known since Aristotle that the line between tragedy and comedy is a very thin one, and it can often be difficult to tell one from the other. Life itself is like that, and art is meant to reflect life, not to provide pseudo-intellectual fibre in hipsters’ morning cereal.

Shakespeare has long been considered the greatest writer in English and what people seem to overlook is that Shakespeare was a funny guy. Even his bleakest play, King Lear, is shot through with flashes of humour, chiefly involving the love triangle between Lear’s daughters and the Duke of Gloucester’s son, Edmund. Edmund is quite the boyo, all things considered.

Most appropriate of all to today’s discussion is the fate of Cinna the Poet in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Marc Anthony has inflamed the passions of the masses after the murder of Julius Caesar, and there are riots all over Rome. A group of rioters catch Cinna the Poet and assume he is the anti-Caesar conspirator of the same name, crying “kill him! Kill him!” all the while.

“I am Cinna the Poet! I am Cinna the Poet!” pleads Cinna. There is a pause, as the disappointed rioters mull this disappointing news over. Then one of the mob, inspired, shouts “Kill him for his bad verses! Kill him for his bad verses!” and that is the end of Cinna.

Miserable Irish novelists might be well advised to stay out of Rome. Just in case.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sun Worship

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Why is the great Irish nation so fascinated with the weather? For this reason: when the sun comes out in Ireland, it isn’t just that it feels like you’re living in another country. It feels like you’re living in the best country in the world.

Being bathed in sunshine isn’t the island’s natural state. Someone has quipped that the difference between summer and winter in Ireland is that in summer, the rain is just that little bit warmer. That’s not far off the mark.

Just as Eskimo languages are said to have many different words for snow, so too the first language of Ireland, Gaeilge, has a variety of different ways of telling us it’s raining, each more horrendous than the next.

So that’s the first thing about the sunshine. When the sun is shining it cannot be raining, and we are therefore already ahead of the game. And then when we look around, we see the real difference that exists.

The grass is that much greener, the sky that much more blue, and the beaches are transformed through the sun’s strange alchemy from a drab grey to a warm golden sheen. Even the sidewalks, buildings and roads of the towns and cities are strangely different – brighter somehow, more open, less claustrophobic. It’s like one of those days at school when you were let bring in your toys.

Look back on old family pictures to see the difference. See how much happier people are in summer, happier even than at Christmas, with all its hidden tensions? It’s very hard pull faces or throw strops when the sun is beating down and the planet is smiling back at it.

Not, of course, that the sun is always your friend. Your correspondent realised that he had crossed that divide between boy and man when my scalp started getting sunburned at Championship matches. A consultation with a hand-held mirror revealed that battle had turned early in the gentleman’s long war between scalp and hairline, and the fall of the hairy kingdom was inevitable.

Now, a hat and an application of sunscreen as heavy as butter on toast is the order of the day if I’m to be abroad under the sun. While a toasted pate stings like the devil, sunburn can lead to other embarrassments. Some years ago, when all the world was young, a friend of the column was at home for the summer, studying for repeat exams at the University, and discovered this the hard way.

After a hard week of looking out the window, our man went into town to refresh himself. He had a skip of beer, staggered home, and feel into bed, content.

The content was quickly replaced by panic and a thunderous headache when the next thing of which he was aware was his mother, roaring at him, shaking him awake, telling him it was Sunday and time for Mass. And if he didn’t get up right this minute, she would get him up, put him in the shower and wash him herself – many’s the time she’d washed him as a child, and did she think she was ashamed of it? No, she was not. And so on, et cetera, ad infinitum.

A splitting head and cramping belly is infinitely preferable to the Irish Mother when she goes full Barack Obama in terms of oratory. Our man got up, showered, dressed, passed on the great big fry for breakfast, and set off walking down the road to the village church, a twenty-minute stroll or so.

After about the twelfth minute of the stroll, Barack-Mammy had faded entirely from memory and all of which that our man was aware was the sun beating down, his head blowing up and general bodily agony. In the distance, the church bell rang, putting another shudder through his nervous system. It was time for an Executive Decision.

He hopped the ditch, lay down in a field and fell into a blessed and blissful sleep, curled up like a baby.

Our man woke with a clear head – the benefit of breathing God’s clear air, rather than the smoky atmosphere of the Irish public houses at the time – and the awareness of a gnawing, all-powerful hunger. Sunday dinner wouldn’t be long dealing with that. He climbed over the ditch again, and hurried home.

Our man walked into the kitchen by the back door and sat down without a care in the world. He was slightly surprised by the absence of a big pot of spuds on the range. He looked around – his younger siblings goggled at him, but were afraid to say anything. They knew there was a storm brewing, and didn’t fancy getting caught in the squall.

“And where were you?” asked Mother.

“I was at Mass,” says our man, oblivious.

“Who said it?” queried Mother, relentless. “What was the sermon about?”

“Father Molloy said it,” replied our man, “and the sermon implored us to love God, and to love our neighbour.” He stressed the second part, to show just how much attention he had been paying. No stranger to the inquisition, our man was confident that this detail would win the day.

Strangely, it was doing anything but. Our man surveyed the field. The younger siblings continued to goggle, while the mother still looked like thunder. What was going on?

“And how long did Father Molloy take to get it through to you that you should love God and love your neighbour?”

“I don’t know, maybe ten minutes. Why?”

“Because,” said his mother, menacingly, “I don’t think you were at Mass at all. I don’t think you even know it’s nearly three o’clock in the day. I think you spent the past three hours passed out from drink ASLEEP IN A FIELD!”

Horror! It was like the woman was psychic – how could she know? Our man swivelled around the kitchen to get his bearings – and suddenly caught sight of himself in a mirror.

He walked over to inspect his reflection. A straight line ran vertically down his face, dividing it neatly between left and right. To the right, he was pale as a pint of milk. The left side of his face, however, was as red as a side of bacon.

And then the mother let a gasp of a laugh, the spell was broken, and they were all falling about laughing after that. In the summertime, no-one stays mad for too long.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Galway v Mayo: Never the Same Game Twice

One of the many knocks on the provincial system is that it’s always the same. People say this like it’s a bad thing. But it’s not. It’s a great thing, the very DNA of the Championship itself.

When Queensland play New South Wales in Rugby League’s shuddering State of Origin games, you don’t hear Queenslanders saying they were sick of playing NSW all the time, and why couldn’t they have a crack at Tasmania for a change. But in the football Championship, the almost-annual clashes are said to be, somehow, “boring.”

As another encounter between Mayo and Galway fast approaches at the end of this week it’s instructive to notice that, whatever else you may say about the rivalry, it has been anything but dull. In the modern era – the qualifier era – Mayo and Galway have played ten times, with five wins each.

Both teams have won twice away, and three times at home. There have been no draws and all ten games have been played in the province, never in the qualifiers a la Cork and Kerry.

But in looking back over those ten games, there is no real pattern. There is no story arc, rising and falling with the development arcs of the respective teams. Each game was played on its own merits, with no relation to form that year or the last time the teams met.

The first Mayo v Galway game of the modern era was in Castlebar in 2002, when Michael Moyles charged from midfield to rifle home a goal into the An Sportlann end in the first minute. Sadly for Mayo, that was as good as it got, as Galway slowly and surely reeled them back in a game memorable only for that goal and some very peculiar betting patterns when the Sunday Game decided to make Man of the Match open to a public vote.

Galway won again in 2003 in Salthill, the first seaside meeting between the teams in 1994, when the match swung on a missed Mayo penalty that was followed up by a goal from the subsequent kickout by Declan Meehan, if memory serves. A six-point swing is nearly always fatal.

In 2004, it looked as though Galway were going to bury Mayo where their bones would never be found as Galway went 1-3 to no-score ahead after ten minutes. Galway then had a penalty at the Albany end to nail the lid on the coffin before people had even finished their post-anthem ice-creams but Michael Donnellan – somehow – either pointed or missed the thing entirely. And then, over the course of the next hour, Mayo did what they weren’t, until that time, particularly noted for doing – they clawed their way all the way back for a win.

Galway had their revenge in 2005, when Peter Ford’s first term in charge saw Galway beat Mayo in the Connacht Final in a robust encounter in Salthill.

Ford’s style sat badly with the aristocracy, and two Connacht titles in three years were not enough to save him. In the light of how football has evolved since, would Galway have been better off had they stuck with Ford? Who knows?

2006 was the year of Mickey Moran and John Morrison, a year like no other in Mayo, with starburst formations in the full-forward line, Ger Brady at centre-half forward, negativity left in builders’ skips and all the rest of it. But the eternally level-headed Ford had Galway put it up to Mayo in the Connacht Final in Castlebar, when it took a last-gasp Conor Mortimer free to win the day.

Galway won two straight then, in 2007 thanks to brace of goals by Cormac Bane on a sweltering day in early, early summer in Salthill, and again in 2008 when a Padraic Joyce-inspired Galway won the Nestor Cup in Castlebar by one point.

Galway fell to Kerry in a quarter-final that year, in an epic game played in monsoon conditions – the rain was so heavy that Jones’ Road itself flooded for a while. There was no shame in it, but there was no silverware either, and that’s the bottom line.

Since then, though, it’s been all Mayo. Mayo beat Galway in the Salthill sunshine in 2009 before having their heads stoved in by another old rival in Croke Park, Meath. That win over Galway was the last Championship win for any team managed by John O’Mahony. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sunday will be the third time Mayo will have played Galway under James Horan. The first was a nail-biting win on a squally wet day in Castlebar; the second a hammering of Galway by Mayo so comprehensive that it’s hard even now to believe that it happened, and we have to wait until the end of this week to see the third encounter’s charms.

That hammering last year served notice to the country that Galway’s line of credit for the All-Irelands of 1998 and 2001 had run out and Galway were now just another team. In Galway, much is made of their inability to win in Croke Park since they beat Meath for their ninth All-Ireland thirteen years ago.

But Galway have only got to Croke Park to lose there five times in the past twelve years. The other seven have seen them dumped out of the Championship in Sligo, Belfast, Navan and, most humiliatingly, twice on home soil. Galway were knocked out of the 2006 Championship when Westmeath beat them in Salthill in the fourth round of the qualifiers, and Wexford beat them in the second round of the qualifiers four years ago this week.

They say that the seeds of an empire’s doom are sown far earlier than its actual fall. Instead of those Croke Park failures, could Galway’s decline be traced back to that Connacht semi-final in 2004, in Castlebar, when Mayo came back from a six-point deficit?

For Mayo people, it would be nice to think so, not least in a week when the rivalry is to resume again. Every Mayo-Galway game is different from the one that went before, and Sunday’s will be different again. Will a new Galway imperium rise in Castlebar, just as it did in 1998? Or will the Mayo backs return Galway’s young tyros to the schoolyard, and her forwards finally click in time for another tilt at the citadel? We’ll have to wait and see.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Demon Drink

First published in the Western People on Monday.

A dangerous quantity of black porter
in the
Palace Bar. Allegedly.
Ireland’s relationship with alcohol is dysfunctional, dangerous and destructive. It makes us overlook the inexcusable and give a pass to behaviour that should be completely unacceptable in every circumstance.

But for all that, using statistics that don’t add up does the alcohol moderation lobby no favours. Once one of their propositions is holed, a shadow of doubt is cast over all of them and their entire argument is on shakier ground than it should be. The latest survey figures from the Health Research Board are just such doubtful statistics.

The Health Research Board survey tells us two things that are very difficult to believe. The first is that a frightening seventy-five per cent of all alcohol consumed in Ireland was consumed as part of binge drinking, rather than the moderated sup that we like think of ourselves as indulging in.

We think that we like a little drop of the craythur to keep the cold winter away, rather than slugging the stuff back like men caught on just as the Guards were battering down the door, horsing it back because they need to destroy the evidence but can’t bear to pour the good drop away.

However, the Health Research Board’s definition of a “binge drinking session” is “the consumption of six standard drinks” in a single sitting. Six standard drinks works out at three pints of beer.

If, as an adult of mature years, you drink three pints of beer you will be aware that you are no longer sober. But to say that you have binged on the stuff is ludicrous. Ludicrous. If three pints is a binge, what word do we use to describe the amount of alcohol consumed by many people – not everybody, of course, but many people – at Christmas? On St Stephen’s night, when everybody is home? On St Patrick’s Day? Have the Health Research Board ever been at the Galway Races or the All-Ireland Final? What do they call that level of consumption?

It could be that, as far as Science is concerned, once you’ve gone past the three-pint mark, it doesn’t matter how much more you drink. By this definition, binge drinking is like being pregnant – once you’re pregnant, you can’t get more pregnant. You’ll never be pregnant-er.

But this flies is the face of both common sense and experience. For instance, many years ago, a friend of this column was stuck in London with some friends for Christmas, looking at the prospect of a lonesome Christmas dinner of cheese sandwiches on dry bread. He did what Paddy often does when he’s lonely – he went to the pub, to drink the pain away.

Unfortunately, while in the pub, he choose to mix his drinks. The next day, this young man did not have cheese sandwiches on dry bread for Christmas dinner. He spent Christmas Day being walked up and down the living room by his friends, in the hope of returning his own powers of locomotion to him.

The Health Research Board survey tells me that man did as much damage to himself as a man who drank three pints in his local on Christmas Eve, because they both went on binges. I say phooey to the Health Research Board survey.

We are told that the three-pint limit is the European Commission standard, at which news we’re supposed to – I don’t know, cheer, I suppose. But the definition is far from agreed, as a 2009 paper in the Oxford Journals’ Social History of Medicine discusses.

The definition of binge drinking used to be what we generally understand as a binge – Richard Harris going out for a pint of milk in London and waking up slaughtered in some bar in New York three days later. The authors of the paper posit that the definition of binge drinking changed as society and politics’ reaction to drinking changed.

In the original definition, binge drinking was a sign of weakness. It showed a chap had no grit, would be read out from the altar and die drunk in an alley. This was a moral judgment.

There are have been two moves away from this definition. Firstly, alcoholism is  now seen as a disease, meaning moral approbation of the old school is no longer appropriate. Secondly, the drinkers about whom society is concerned has changed.

One hundred years ago, society was concerned about layabouts who would rather drink than work. Now, society is concerned about young people drinking, especially young women. These are not the same groups, and should not be addressed in the same language.

But where Aughrim is lost is that the terminology has not changed with the public health policy. It would not have been hard to come up with a word to describe the drinking patterns of at-risk groups like young people who have more money than sense. By not inventing a new terminology, the definition appears ridiculous.

Three pints of an evening is not a session – never was, never will be. At risk young people know this from watching adults. So they know they’re being fed a line if they’re told that three pints is dangerous drinking, and automatically switch off when they should be paying attention. The Health Research Board is doing more harm than good in releasing surveys that are fine in a lab but that have no bearing whatsoever in reality.

As evidenced by the other howler in the Health Research Board survey, the definition of a “standard drink.” A standard drink, by this Health Research Board’s definition, is half a pint of beer, a small glass of wine or pub measure of spirits.

I know more or less nothing about the grape, but beer and whiskey I’ve met before. That standard drink definition tells me that three pints of beer are the same as six glasses of whiskey. Reader, they are not.

I wrote earlier that after drinking three pints of beer you are no longer sober. After drinking six glasses of whiskey you may not know that you are no longer sober, but everyone in your company is fully sure that you are drunk and are now in need of minding if things are not to get out of hand.

Whiskey is a beautiful drink, but it should only be drunk on special occasions, one glass at a time. It’s a fine toast at a birth, and a lovely tribute after a death – I seem to remember a tradition of men going for a solemn whiskey after the opening of a grave in the ancient long ago. But more than one is almost always a mistake.